Adapt or Die: 13 Steps to Adapting a Film from Something Else
“We’re not special. We’re not brilliant. We never were.” So says David Harbour’s character in my film Between Us. And he’s right. Most of us probably started as writer-directors by necessity, but at a certain point in a filmmaker’s career (and of course, if you have an actual “career,” you will eventually cease to be a filmmaker, and become instead a “filmSmaker”), you will realize you’re probably not as brilliant or talented as you once thought you were. If you were indeed a genius screenwriter, you’re probably better off writing scripts for Hollywood and actually getting paid to write anyway. But if you want to keep directing, you’ll realize that you have neither the time, inclination nor skill to keep writing your own original material all the time. And that’s where the adaptation comes in. But where to begin?
1. You’re Not Brilliant. To assume that every indie filmmaker is as equally adept at writing sparkling dialogue in an original story as they are at directing actors, choosing camera angles, or cutting a scene is rationally unrealistic – especially to do so on every film, every time. It’s no wonder that barely 15% of Hollywood films are based on truly original scripts, and even fewer directed by the sole writer. Step One is acceptance: You’re no genius.
2. You’re in Good Company. The next step is to realize that you’re not alone. Sure, Woody Allen can churn out a script every year, and Joe Swanberg can knock one out every month or two. It’s certainly possible. But many, if not most, of your beloved auteur heroes have done adaptations or worked with other screenwriters on most of their films. Think about Altman, Kubrick, Scorcese, Hitchcock – their best films were either adapted from books, plays, articles or at the very least came from original screenplays from close collaborators. Meanwhile, their plates were plenty full focusing on directing their movies – and more often than not – producing them, too. But on an indie no-budget film, how can you possibly do what Hollywood does everyday? One first step is to figure out who the gatekeepers are to the good material.
3. Find a Play. If a play wins the Pulitzer or Tony for Best Drama, Scott Rudin or Harvey Weinstein will usually snatch up the rights. But for most Broadway and Off-Broadway plays, there is very little interest in getting the film rights. Why? ecause most of the agents that represent playwrights are scrambling to get their clients booked as staff writers on TV dramas. Ever since Aaron Sorkin launched The West Wing, there’s been a steady migration of playwrights to L.A. There’s way more money in it for them (and their agents), and that’s one reason we’re in a new golden age of TV.
Each of the Hollywood agencies has one or two playwriting agents in their New York offices. These agents are usually very bright and talented (or at least they think they are compared to their colleagues in L.A.). A few years ago, I walked into their offices and said, “Hey, you got any Broadway or Off-Broadway plays with film rights available?” and they said, “Sure! No one ever asks for these! Here’s stacks and stacks of them collecting dust on our shelves.” I read about 30 of these orphaned plays and two in particular struck me as having great potential for movies. One, a political thriller by Beau Willimon called Farragut North was good, but I thought it’d be tougher to do on a low budget. I passed on it, and George Clooney turned it into Ides of March. (See my HuffPost article “How George Clooney Got a Happy Ending from My Sloppy Seconds.”) Eh, a couple Oscar nominations later, and now Beau’s the show-runner on Netflix’s House of Cards while that Clooney fellow struggles to get by at all. I dodged a bullet on that one!
The other script I liked was Between Us, which had been a hit play at the largest Off-Broadway theater in New York, the Manhattan Theater Club. Written by Joe Hortua, it was largely about two couples yelling and throwing things at each other over the course of two nights in two locations. Aha, I thought! That sounds like it could be done at a low budget (if need be), and being firmly in the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf genre, it had the kind of roles and dialogue that actors drool over. It also hit closer to home for me emotionally than most of what I’d read: It was about struggling artists dealing with marriage, children and finances, and all a similar age to me. I could definitely relate.
4. Books are Just Screenplays with Adjectives. Beyond plays, don’t forget novels. All you need to do is cut out all those pesky adjectives and interior monologues and – presto! – you’ve got a screenplay. Easy-peasy. But getting the rights to a good book is the hard part.
One of the least known breeds of agents in Hollywood has got to be the elusive “book-to-film” agent. All the big agencies have them. Usually, a boutique book agent or publisher in New York isn’t the one dealing directly with the studios and Hollywood production companies. Nope, it’s these “book-to-film” agents who do the heavy lifting on these deals. Like their playwright-repping brethren, they also tend to be brighter and more nuanced than their TV-schmoozing colleagues. They “read”, to use their secret code.
I first learned about these “book-to-filmers” when I co-wrote my own satirical novel (I Am Martin Eisenstadt) with fellow filmmaker Eitan Gorlin (The Holy Land). Even though we arguably had the most prestigious publisher in New York (Farrar, Straus, Giroux – a division of Macmillan) and a shark of a book agent at Endeavor (pre-merge with William Morris), when it came time to pitching it as a TV show or film, we got in touch with these book-to-film agents in L.A. After one disastrous meeting with the two Endeavor agents (ending in the memorable phrase, “please escort these gentlemen out of the building”), we were freed up to meet with book-to-filmers at all the other agents, eventually signing with ICM.
What’s relevant for the indie filmmaker is that when Hollywood options a book for some ungodly amount of money, they usually get a few years out of it, commission a screenplay and then decide not to make the movie. Consequently, those agents have large stack of books in their offices collecting dust (including mine). But while those screenplays may come with six or seven-figure turnaround costs, the rights to the books themselves don’t. So if you like one of them, all you may need to do is offer a token option and start from scratch with a new screenplay. The author will be thrilled, the agent will have new space on their shelves and the next thing you know, you’ve got a damn fine script with a proven pedigree.
5. Develop Relationship with Original Author. No matter what kind of deal you strike with an agent, it will always be a better deal – and more importantly a better project in the end – if you’ve developed a strong relationship with the original author. I know one filmmaker who’s trying to secure a 15-year-old newspaper article from a writer that she personally knows well. But the agency that reps the newspaper is telling the filmmaker they won’t even start talking for less than a $10,000 option. For an indie film, this is obviously a non-starter. But think about it, the agent’s only getting 10% – so for them, that still only $1,000 – barely worth the paperwork in their eyes. This is what we’re up against.
But if the writer is personally motivated to get the film made, they can pressure the agents from their end, and you can get things going. Better yet, get the underlying material from someone you’re already friends with. Benh Zeitlin had been childhood friends with Lucy Alibar and had always wanted to adapt one of her plays. The next thing you know, Joan Rivers is asking Benh and Lucy who they’re wearing at the Oscars.
But if you don’t already know the playwright or author, then get to know them. Go to New York, buy them a deli sandwich, hire them a Thai “massage” therapist and take incriminating pictures. Whatever it takes!
I was lucky with Joe the Playwright. He’d always wanted to turn Between Us into a feature, and he liked my previous work. We had similar Midwestern backgrounds and got along well: He stayed at my house. I drove him on countless airport runs to LAX. I even bailed his car out of impound once! Things aren’t always going to go smoothly with any creative collaborator, and we know that indie films bring out the stress in any relationship. But if you start from a genuine level of mutual respect, you’ll get through it.
6. Use Their Experience to Your Benefit. One advantage of using source material is that there’s already a body of reaction to that work. You can read reviews of the book or play: If there was a consistent criticism, you can address the underlying problems. If there was consistent praise about a certain element, then don’t mess with it. On Between Us, we were also lucky enough to be working with David Harbour, one of the original cast members of the play. Between him and Joe, I could ask them what lines got laughs, what lines fell flat and otherwise what worked and what didn’t with audiences. This is a tremendous advantage compared to working with original material.
We were also lucky enough to have Joe join me for our two-week rehearsal process. If the actors had questions about the backstory for their characters, or their motivations, we could all just ask Joe. And believe me, it’s better to have the luxury of asking and answering those questions in rehearsal rather than when you have a room full of grips staring at you wondering when lunch break is.
7. Connect with the Material. If you’re going to spend six years producing a film, three weeks shooting it, two years in post, and another three years promoting it, you’d better relate to it personally. With all the inevitable challenges of making the movie, you’ve got to have an emotional stake in the script or at some point you will get frustrated and abandon it. You need to make it your baby, as much as it was the original writer’s. Your cast and crew will see this, too: They don’t want to work for free for a director who’s just going through the motions.
For Between Us, that meant taking a chapter from my own life and grafting it into the script. When I first read the play, I was still recovering from a very nasty fall off a ladder that left me in a wheelchair for six months, and crutches and a cane for another year after. (See Mark Bell’s nice piece about my accident in Film Threat.) So when I was looking for a visual catharsis for David Harbour’s character in the movie, I literally recreated my accident in the movie (even filming it in my house, close to where I’d actually fallen). Talk about catharsis! But it worked well for the character, and leant itself to visual elements (like a memorable scene of a wheelchair struggling in the snow) that I knew would help “open up” the play.
8. Don’t Call it “Opening Up.” Remember, you’re adapting a play into a film, you’re not just filming a play. When you say you’re doing an adaptation, most people will ask how you’re “opening up” the play. But really what they should be saying is how are you going to make it more cinematographic. I reckon there are three broad techniques that differentiate a play from a movie:
9. Location, Location, Location. Most obviously, you’ve got the opportunity to move your dialogue scenes from a play into new and exciting locations. You can shoot scenes in cars, restaurants, airplanes, wherever your heart desires. But presumably one reason you picked a play to adapt in the first place is that it would be easy to shoot as an indie film. So don’t move your actors to different locations just for the hell of it. The audience will see right through it. Even on a revered classic like the Mike Nichols directed apatation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The New York Times castigated Nichols for setting part of the movie outside of the stage-bound house. Poor Nichols couldn’t win! (But I think he got the last laugh when he picked up a couple Oscars for it). On the other hand, look at the reviews of Polanski’s Carnage and even the good ones criticize it for being too claustrophobic (never mind the fact that Polanski has certain legal preclusions from filming on the streets of New York).
10. Editing: Macro and Micro. In Between Us, the first act of the play took place in a midwestern house, and the second act was two years later in a New York apartment. In terms of story, character and themes they were quite different from one another. I had the idea to intercut those acts together in a way that we could do nimbly on film. Joe the Playwright embraced the idea and we started shuffling scenes back and forth. My editors and I went even further with these temporal shifts in post-production. Without changing much of the dialogue from the play at all, we were able to bring a whole other dimension to the film that intrinsically makes it feel more like a movie.
Meanwhile, the “micro” editing within scenes and between scenes is the most unique part of what makes a movie a movie. Remember back to your Battleship Potemkin film school days: You think ol’ Serg’ Eisenstein gave a shit about delicate fade-to-black stage lighting between scenes? Hella no! So whether it’s using jumpcuts, crashcuts, or even a Toasty old star-wipe, these are your unique tools as a filmmaker so use them!
11. Putting the “Move” in “Movies.” Through camera placement, movement, and framing, you’ve got the ability in film to literally focus attention on one actor or part of the scene in a way that you can’t on stage. The classic example is Hitchcock’s Rope where the camera is moving towards characters – or the dead body in the trunk – in a way that makes the camera (and therefore the audience) feel like an additional character itself. Altman did this, too, with his infamous zooming lens on his films (including a number of play adaptations).
Working with ASC cinematographer Nancy Schreiber on Between Us that was always something we talked about (if not always achieved): dollying, slow push-ins, framing close-ups and playing moments on reactions. In editing and post, we kept things moving, too. Having shot on 4k and finished on 2k, we had the luxury of reframing, selective defocusing, zooming up to 170%, and other visual tricks in color correction. Sound design and music cues served the same purpose – pushing the audience’s attention exactly where we wanted it to go.
12. Use Your Source Material’s Pedigree. There’s a reason Hollywood likes to adapt material – it’s easier to get them made and to get them seen once they’re made. If you have the imprimatur of being based on a “hit” Off-Broadway play or a “best-selling” novel, you will find it easier to get investors, hire actors, and sell your movie than if it was just another original writer/director wankjob. It really doesn’t even matter if any of these people have heard of, seen or read the source material. Just by virtue of the fact that it was made once before, means that there must be some validity to it.
13. Don’t Apologize for Your Source Material. Nearly as annoying as too-faithful adaptations are the ones that stray too far from their source. You don’t want critics who never read the book or saw the play sniping that the movie’s not as good as the original. And if your original has a fan base, you can’t risk alienating them. You adapted the film from your original for a host of reasons, so don’t leave the audience guessing. I’ve got “Based on a Play by Joe Hortua” right there in my front credits. I like the tight, talky dialogue. I like that there are only four main characters in the movie. I like that there aren’t a lot of locations, but the ones we do have look great. I’m proud to say that Between Us was adapted from a play. And if audiences don’t want to see crackerjack performers yelling and throwing things in a room, well, I know an old Russian silent movie I can suggest they see instead.
After 22 festivals and a 50-city theatrical release through Monterey Media, Dan Mirvish’s award-winning film Between Us, starring Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs, Melissa George and David Harbour, is currently available on VOD, iTunes and DVD.